Turkish women blast US envoy

The Washington Post reports Sept. 29 that a group of Turkish women’s rights activists confronted Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes with harsh criticisms of the US-led invasion of Iraq, turning a session designed to highlight the empowering of women into a raw display of the anger at Washington’s policy in the region.

“This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero,” said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an activist with the Capital City Women’s Forum. She said it was difficult to talk about cooperation between women in the US and Turkey as long as Iraq is under occupation.

Hughes, a close confidante of President Bush tasked with improving the US image overseas, has generally met with polite audiences in a tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week. In Ankara, the US Embassy asked an umbrella group known as Ka-Der, which supports women running for office, to draw up the guest list. Six of the eight invited women who spoke at the session focused on the Iraq war.

“War makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war — and women pay the price,” said Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish women’s rights activist. Vargun also expressed her support of Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war mother arrested in front of the White House this week.

Hughes, described as “increasingly subdued during the session,” defended the decision to invade Iraq. “You’re concerned about war, and no one likes war,” Hughes said. But “to preserve the peace, sometimes my country believes war is necessary,” she said.

“War is not necessary for peace,” shot back Feray Salman, a human rights activist. She said countries should not try to impose democracy through war, adding that “we can never, ever export democracy and freedom from one country to another.”

Tuksal said she was “feeling myself wounded, feeling myself insulted here” by Hughes’ response. “In every photograph that comes from Iraq, there is that look of fear in the eyes of women and children… This needs to be resolved as soon as possible.”

Turkey, a member of NATO, has long been a close U.S. ally, but relations have soured during the Bush administration, especially after Turkey’s parliament blocked a request to allow U.S. troops to use its territory to invade Iraq from the north. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley visited Ankara last week as part of a new effort by the White House to mend ties.

Concerns were also raised about an increase in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed Kurdish separatist group operating out of northern Iraq. The US has faced accusations that it has not done enough to rein in the group. When Nurdan Bernard, a journalist participating in the panel session, brought up the PKK, Hughes responded that it was “somewhat an irony.” She added: “Sometimes you have to engage in combat in order to confront terrorists who want to kill you.”

See our last posts on Turkey and on Iraq.